Honouring Tom Brzustowski

Chers collegues, chers amis, chers etudiants et cher President,

Notre communaute a choisi d’honorer le President sortant du CRSNG. Et quelle belle occasion pour le faire devant les centaines d’etudiants de la generation MITACS (si j’ose dire). Apres tout, Tom a toujours donne la priorite aux nouvelles generations de chercheurs scientifiques, mais aussi il fallait que les jeunes d’aujourd’hui realisent que les choses n’etaient pas toujours pareilles. Pour qu’ils apprennent comment, qui, and how we got here because we need them to carry the torch and keep the campaign alive.

Now many of you here, may be wondering why are we honouring Tom Brzustowski? The president of an agency which –let’s face it– is prone to give more bad news than good ones. Well let me read you an excerpt of a speech I gave at the first Canada-China Congress in Beijing, August 1999.

“…The Canadian delegation has also another special reason to enjoy this event as it finds the presence of Tom Brzustowski here, particularly gratifying. Tom started his term as President of NSERC at a time when the Canadian mathematical community was at a crossroad and was doing lots of soul-searching (sort of speak). Very early on, Tom Brzustowski saw the importance of the moment and –unphased by risk or political considerations– he managed to find and give the mathematical community this little bit of space, of margin to allow it to collectively, experiment, innovate, restructure and grow. He then dared us to succeed. The result has been one of the success stories of Canadian Science and also of the Canadian granting system. In many ways, our community is here (in Beijing) because of you Tom and we thank you for that.”

Now that was in 1999, and we were just starting. As I was preparing few thoughts for tonight, I was struck by the cheer number of occasions in which Tom elected to join our community, albeit in celebrating success or in regrouping after a failure. Tom believed in us from day one when we had nothing to offer but conviction and passion. He chose to support our mission when he had to make the hard choices. He stood by our effort when we were stumbling. He kept our hopes alive when we were fighting the odds, and he stood proud of us in the moments of triumph.

But all had started in December 1995 at Green College, UBC. The backdrop? Mathematics had lost 10% of its already underfunded envelope in the first NSERC re-allocation and most soft programs available to math had fallen to budget cuts. NSERC staff had already started inquiring about new technologies so as to screen my phone calls, block my emails, and to create an early version of a no-fly zone above Ottawa, especially for traffic coming from the West.

Tom Brzustowski was appointed President and what was his first act? To come meet us in Vancouver. I remember Nigel looking so worried (and you can read everything on Nigel’s kind face) feeling very responsible for bringing the new NSERC boss on his maiden voyage to Bagdad Cafe. He had reasons to worry… not because we were unpleasant or anything like that, but because we were struggling to explain to them a vague idea of a National network (the first version of MITACS) and –in retrospect– we didn’t know what the heck we were talking about.

It is hard to believe that of our team, I find ten years later that one became president of a major university, one is a VP research, one is dean of science in the US and the most english-challenged among us, became a professional Master of Ceremonies. Now Tom was calm, attentive, he listened to us for hours and finally summarized very clearly, in few minutes, and in his maddeningly articulate ways what we were trying to sell him all day.

….and many of you know what happened since… The community built PIMS, consolidated the funding of Fields and CRM as well as the math grant selection committees. We’ve been one of the few successful disciplines in 2 consecutive NSERC re-allocations exercises. Together, the 3 institutes initiated the MITACS network, which ought to be a source of pride for all of you here tonight. We developed the Banff International Research Station with our US and now Mexican partners. We jump-started the Atlantic Association for the Mathematical Sciences and we created together several groundbreaking international links for our scientific community…and guess what

Behind every one of these success stories, I will not be exagerating if I say that you can find the gentle and caring hand of Tom B.. Here are the facts folks:

• Without Tom, the NSERC sponsored international review of Canadian mathematics wouldn’t have happened in 1996, reversing the stigma of the first reallocation.

• PIMS wouldn’t have existed without Tom’s personal intervention in 1997, and again in1998.

• The MITACS network wouldn’t have been launched in 1999, without Tom’s numerous interventions, encouragement and prodding, especially after the failure of the first attempt for an NSERC network.

• The Canada-China initiative and the first Canada-China Congress in 1999 was on the verge of being aborted, if Tom hadn’t found the resources to support and head the delegation of over 60 Canadian mathematicians to Beijing.

• Tom then insisted on participating in the second Canada-China Congress in Vancouver in 2001.

• Now I think that I am well positioned to tell you that BIRS had no way to see the light if it hadn’t been for Tom and for Nigel Lloyd who connected us with the NSF and sent all the good vibes to our international partners to make this unprecedented collaboration a reality.

• And more recently, when we wanted to engage Mexico for BIRS, it was NSERC again that we looked to for help.

• Now these are the success stories, and not all the stories were successful though quite telling. Here is one that most of you did not know, even you Barbara who has been trying –and rightly so– to engage government to suitably endow the Fields medal. It was Tom’s initiative to try to do so back in 2001. He planned it, initiated it, wrote it and forwarded the project to the minister. All I had to do was to co-sign. Vintage Tom’s dedication to Canada, to its science and to its mathematics.

• Here is the story from my own personal pespective as a former director. You see, PIMS was born 10 years ago as a mass movement, as an intellectual revolution of some sort. It wasnt just a couple of people who wanted to build an institute. Now, I don’t need to tell you that granting agencies and mass movements do not mix very well. And that’s exactly where Tom came in to catch our respect and admiration: Tom read very clearly this –unheard of– phenomenon, and instead of allowing his agency to circle the wagons and withdraw into a bureaucratic cocoon, he found a way to empower this new energy on behalf of Canadian science and allowed it to explode in innovation and creativity for the world to see. This should tell you lots about the man we are honouring tonight.

• The bottom line, is that under Tom’s leadership, NSERC has changed its ways! Council became more in tune with the concerns and aspirations of the scientific communities of Canada. NSERC was no more a mere funnel for government cash to grantees through peer review. Tom, Nigel, and now Isabelle (n’est-ce pas?) became pro-active partners and invaluable counselors in the building efforts. Let’s just hope that things will remain that way.

As for Tom: You showed Leadership, Commitment to excellence, Integrity and above all Generosity. You gave us time, guidance, and friendship. On behalf of all your friends in the Canadian mathematical community, I say Thank you and good luck in your future plans.

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